Wednesday, March 15, 2006

"Beware the Ides of March"

This line is the warning by a soothsayer to the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar in Act 1, scene 2, of Shakespeare’s play of the same name. It is a foretelling of Caesar’s assassination on that day (which fell on the 15th that month, March, 44BCE) by Brutus and Cassius, for whom Dante reserved a special place in the lowest level of Hell (a level shared only by Judas Iscariot). It is one of the earliest specific dates on the secular calendar most learned people can remember – a distinction that makes sense because it had only been a few years since Caesar had established his calendar.

For Jews this was a particularly notable event, for Julius Caesar was a rarity: a despot who was good to Jews. Josephus lists some of Caesar’s favorable (to us) decrees:

This ‘perpetual dictator’ referred to Jews as ‘friends and confederates’ and his actions matched his words! This from a man known primarily for his ruthlessness, as this short bio indicates:

Few non-Jewish rulers would be as favorable toward Jews over the next 1800 years. See

for one who was.

This presents a dilemma. Caesar was not a mensch. He rarely showed mercy toward his opponents – although it should be noted that he had once showed mercy toward the men who later became his assassins. He was ruthless and brutal in extending Roman power; it is hard to envision today the impact of casualties of the magnitude suffered in his wars – in a population that is much smaller than today. And he was not only an idol worshiper but the pontifex maximus of Rome! But he was good to Jews.

Most anti-Semites are generally awful people. And most people who are good to Jews are generally good people. Julius Caesar does not belong in either group. Fortunately, Jews do not appear to have suffered from having been on Caesar’s side when the assassins took their revenge. But it is an ethical dilemma that is worth thinking about whenever we consider currying favor with contemporary authoritarian regimes.

To anyone who has not seen the Shakespeare play, I wholeheartedly recommend it. There are also two movie versions I recommend: Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ 1953 film in which a young Marlon Brando fires up the crowd as Marc Antony:

and Stuart Burge’s 1970 film in which Charlton Heston recreates the Antony speech (a decade and a half after playing Moses):

John Gielgud appeared in both – as Cassius in the 1953 version and as Caesar in the 1970!


Anonymous charedilite said...

Franco, the Spanish dictator, is another example of this phenomenon. Although allied with Germany during WW2, he did not comply with the German requests to deport Spanish Jews to Germany, stating that all Spaniards had Jewish blood in them (from the Jews who converted or went underground at the time of the 1492 Expulsion from Spain).

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